Catalyst launches Co-Founders to connect future start-up leaders in Derry

25 Feb 2020

From left: Leann Monk-Özgül, Nathasha O'Dea and Jennifer Neff. Image: Catalyst

Catalyst hopes to bring together individuals in Derry from technical and commercial backgrounds and help them develop new product ideas, solve problems and form start-ups.

Not-for-profit organisation Catalyst has launched its Co-Founders programme in Derry, which aims to tap into the north-west’s talent base and encourage more people to get involved in start-up ventures.

As part of the initiative, Innovate UK will offer five funding grants of £10,000 to the best ideas as proof-of-concept grants. Catalyst is inviting applications from people who are interested in taking part in the programme, which will be based at the Catalyst Innovation Centre in Fort George in Derry.

Co-Founders will be a part-time programme for first-time entrepreneurs and early-stage start-ups, taking place one night a week for 10 weeks.

The programme aims to bring together talented, skilled and ambitious individuals from technical and commercial backgrounds, to meet like-minded people interested in developing new product ideas focused on technology, engineering and science.


While Co-Founders launched in Belfast in 2017, this is the first time the programme will take place in Derry. Since its launch, the programme has delivered four cohorts involving 170 people who formed more than 50 teams. To date, 20 teams have received proof-of-concept funding and eight teams have progressed to Catalyst’s full-time Propel pre-accelerator programme.

Co-Founders has attracted software engineers, data scientists, sales and marketing experts, medical professionals, mechanical engineers, researchers, undergraduates and PhDs, as well as people who have just experienced a problem in a certain industry or from everyday life and wanted to develop a solution.

Sonya Kerr, programme manager of Co-Founders, said: “We know there is a wealth of talent in the north-west and a lot of people who have great ideas or are restless to try something new, who will really benefit from meeting others with different skills needed to build a start-up that they wouldn’t normally have a chance to meet.

“Teams on Co-Founders are willing to try something different, meet new people and stretch themselves. We certainly don’t expect everyone to leave their jobs immediately and create a start-up, but by helping people validate their ideas and build teams, it becomes a real option for many.”

Encouraging people in the region

According to Catalyst, of the nine companies that completed the first Co-Founders programme, three are still together and two have raised more than £100,000 in funding to build and launch their products.

Lorraine Acheson from Innovate UK said: “We hope Co-Founders will help encourage more people in the region to consider becoming founders of the new ventures needed to grow Northern Ireland’s knowledge economy.

“We look forward to seeing more exciting start-ups emerge from the first programme in the north-west and we’re delighted to provide a seed funding prize for the best of the new ventures.”

Co-Founders will provide participants with access to a co-working space within Catalyst to help them to grow their own networks. Applications are open here until 12 March.

Helping founders to find their team

The programme will also be backed by entrepreneurs Jennifer Neff and Leann Monk-Özgül, who are the co-founders and co-CEOs of Elemental Software, a health-tech firm based in Derry that helps hundreds of organisations throughout the UK and Ireland to enhance the impact of their social prescribing programmes.

Elemental is attempting to bridge the gap between health, housing and communities with a range of digital solutions designed to support the strategy and practice of self-care and independence.

Monk-Özgül said: “We were really lucky to meet, find we were passionate about solving the same problem and had the right chemistry to build a product and business together. But it would have been great to have had a programme like this available when we started.

“Catalyst providing an environment to help co-founders meet will hopefully lead to many more start-ups coming out of Derry.”

Neff added: “Meeting talented and skilled people outside of your normal network, who can help test and challenge your ideas, is incredibly important to building the growth-mindset and resilience you need as a start-up founder. “

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic